The town of Broadwater, Virginia had to be abandoned in the 1930s when rapid beach erosion made its continued existence untenable.
This story and collection of photos originally appeared in an October 1956 Sun Magazine.
There is a strip of beach a couple of hours’ trip off the Virgina coast where the Atlantic breaks heavily in storms and subsides to a ripple in calms. But neither rough water nor smooth makes any difference in what has been happening there for a quarter-century. Through a quiet and deadly action of the sea that no man can stop, the land has been, and is being, swallowed up.
Hard white sand lies where once was forest shade. Waves march among heaps of bone-white tree trunks whose intricate root systems, preserved in their entirety by the salt, are festooned with sea grass.
A random sagging shanty or two testify to human occupation in the past. The human occupants of the present are a handful of Coast Guardsmen stationed at the channel that separates this island, Hog, from the one directly north, Parramore. The rest of the place belongs to the circling fish hawks above the mosquitoes thick as smoke in the marshes below.
Except for one thing there is no hint that a proud and happy community of 250 men, women and children lately thrived here. That thing is the burying-ground of the citizens of Broadwater.
Like the pine forest, the little church around which the graves clustered, stood almost two miles from the beach within living memory. Near it were the half-a-hundred homes, sportman’s club, hotel and other building comprising the only village in America to flourish for a century and then be engulfed by the sea. There was a tall lighthouse, too. Its steel skeleton was firmly lodged on deep-laid concrete on the highest central point in the island. Today its barnacled foundations lie offshore out of reach of any strong swimmers. The shrinking coastline yearly increases the distance.
The encroaching sea was not satisfied to disperse the people and destroy the cultivated land. Now it has opened the vaults of the dead. The low land required shallow interment. The breakers easily washed away the earth, caved in the bricks and exposed many once-beloved remains to the sun. Then, as if ashamed of their work, they reclothed them in vestments of seaweed and sand. The tombstones fell. After a while all will be hidden under the carpet of the sea.
When these islanders, who lived from the sea, are finally returned to it in death, a cycle encompassing three centuries in Virginia history will have come to a close. The first settlement here was far older than the modern Broadwater. It was in 1672 that a group of 22 colonists and their families went to live on Machipongo Island, just a few miles above the entrance to Chesapeake Bay. What became of them is an impenetrable mystery. They disappeared so completely that no descendants are known.
Despite their fate, it remained the consensus that living on the island was good. The sea, the inlets and the marshes teemed with fish and fowl. As for flesh, the natural pastures were ideal for livestock, particularly hogs. There must have been an impressive number of these at one time to cause the romantic-sounding name Machipongo to be dropped in their favor.
Not till the Revolution did the second colonization begin. This was the seed of the Broadwater of yesterday.
The people lived truly on the fat of the land. Oysters, clams, crabs and fish or a superiority unchallenged in the rest of the United States were staples. Vegetable gardens yielded two crops a year. The flight of wildfowl darkened the skies. Head-of-the-household income probably never quite touched $1,000 a year, but what of it? Aside from a few necessities like clothing and shelter, nothing required cash.
The hardy, self-reliant folk laughed at insurance agents. Their total taxes were a few cents a year paid on their real estate to the Northampton county treasurer. They did not even have to license their automobiles. They made their own roads. They enjoyed such health that a doctor would have starved. Though many of them were laid low by the flu epidemic of 1918 there was not one death.
They were strict Methodists. Everybody went to church and kept the Commandments. There was never any drunkenness, fighting or other mischief. Every man kept his money in his home, and in some cases this meant considerable cash. But no one ever reported it missing.
There was a story operated by Sam Kelly. Like everything else on Hog Island, this store was different from what you would expect. No one ever was permitted in it. Every morning Mr. Kelly made the rounds taking orders. Every afternoon, after loading up in his forbidden precincts, he delivered. He kept this up until he was over 80.
No one ever knew him to buy anything except to sell it. He was the secret topic of conversation: how much money did he have and where was it hidden? After he died in lonely squalor, his quarters were searched. Thousands of dollars were hidden away in nooks and crannies. But it was calculated that the amount should have been much greater. It was decided that he had buried most of it. It was never found.
There was a school, supported by the islanders. Granted that when the children completed the elementary courses there was no more formal learning to be had without leaving the island; but most were content with the higher education given by the ocean and the realties of becoming self-sufficient. This stood them in better stead than college degrees.
The Hog Islanders who are living today, many of them still in their original homes — which were ferried to the mainland when the sea took over — will tell you no life could compare with theirs at Broadwater. It was not one of hard labor, punctuated by short intervals of rest. Economic pressure was deliciously absent. They acted like retired coupon clippers, except that nature was their investment instead of Wall Street. They could be busy or at leisure as they chose. Perhaps for this reason the Eastern Shore’s most colorful character, Southey (Sud) Bell, transferred his citizenship there.
Sud was many things — a singer, storyteller, loafer (in the Whitmanian sense), and boon companion; but putting everything as well as everyone else, in the shade was his banjo playing. Without exception, those who heard him pluck a string — and this included Broadwat stars, jaded sophisticates and musical illiterates alike — thought him to be one of the seven wonders. But like the wind blowing “where it liseth,” Sud played only on impulse. This cut him off from the stage, where the rigidest of unwritten laws says “The show myst go on.” Anyway, what uses did he have for money? He was a Hog Islander, wasn’t he?
Tales of Sud would fill a book with gorgeous reading. He was the pet of party-throwers and the darling of bored millionaires. One of the latter told him to look up if he ever came to New York.
Sud did. He walked into his friend’s swank brokerage office one day carrying a buldging suitcase. “I’ve brought you a present from the Eastern Shore,” he announced. Just then the suitcase came open and its contents, about twelve lively diamondback terrapin, began crawling over the oriental rugs under the carved furniture. The New Yorker’s heart was touched; at that time terrapin were worth $100 a dozen.
Sud stayed on Hog Island to the last. He played — if he was in the mood — for anybody who would listen, and on that leisurely island there were always listeners. He enlivened, above any heights known before, the island square dances. These, because of native rules of propriety, always stopped at the modest hour of 10 o’clock.
His star waned when he had to reutrn to the civilization of the mainland. It is no coincidence that genius such as his flourished best on untrammeled Hog Island.
Another who suffered, but in a different way, from the dissolution of Broadwater was the main carrier. Every weekday he made the trip across the 6-mile wide but intricately channeled bay to the mainland. During the boom years he profited to such an extent by carrying freight along with mail that he decided to hold the main franchise at any cost. In the minds of the islanders the mail boat was the freight boat, too. He put in a bid so low that no one would come below it: One dollar a year.
This was just before the exodus when the people began to read the handwriting on the wall or, rather, the beach. One by one the houses were moved on barges lashed together to the mainland. THe sustaining commerce of the island, sea food, was at an end. Groceries, clothing and tools were no longer needed. There was not mail enough for a carrier pigeon. Nevertheless, the dispossessed dollar-a-year man continued his lonely trips for the life of the contract.
No one can tell when the ocean’s attack will abate. May be not until the whole island is gone. On the other hand, it may abruptly begin to build up again. In not so very many years the memory of those who called it home will pass with them. The days of the most permanent work of man left on the island, the graveyard, are numbered. Only one object has been preserved for all time; the lens from the tall lighthouse rests in security at the Mariners Museum in Newport News. The friendly gleam through its thick convoluted glass once warned many a ship away from the devious shallows. No one dreamed then that the lighthouse too would become one with the shifting sands.